Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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What is the Rock?

Jesus offers his followers the kind of life that results in rest and peace. Yet Christians are thrown from crisis to crisis as if the storms of life are in control. Still, Jesus is very clear on this: if we will take his yoke upon ourselves, we can find the kind of life that will be characterized by rest and peace. Who doesn’t want a life like this?

My wife worked for years in a crisis pregnancy center. One day a young, unmarried Christian woman (a teenager, at that) came into the center for a free pregnancy test. The test was positive, and my wife delivered the news to the girl. “I don’t understand,” she cried as my wife held the girl in her arms. “How could God let this happen to me?” The news rocked this poor girl’s world. She received the news as if the pregnancy was something that happened to her--as if some force beyond her control had imposed its will on her and changed her life forever.

In my invitations to speak to Christian organizations, many people are familiar with the gospel stories I select as the theme for my talks. This familiarity can sometimes work against hearing the word of God in a way that can change our lives right now. We are tempted to think that because we have a heard a story before we must already understand its meaning. I believe this is especially true of the final story Jesus tells in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, & 7). So many people have heard the story they unwittingly think there is no need to let the word of God instruct them if they hear it again. But let’s try to hear it again:

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." (Matthew 7: 24-27)

Each time, after I read these words out loud, I stop and ask the same question: “What is the rock?” In more than a decade of speaking engagements I have never once been given the correct answer immediately. The answers offered are invariably “Jesus,” “God,” or “the Bible.” These are answers are worthy sentiments, but they are wrong.

Only after reading the text a second (or third) time with special emphasis given to the key phrase does it dawn on the listeners that Jesus is requiring something of them in response to his preaching. Jesus says plainly that the difference between the two builders is putting his words into practice. One man hears and puts the words into practice, and the other does not. The old-fashioned word for this response is “obedience.” In these three chapters Jesus offers words of life. He speaks to our condition. He challenges our ideas of piety. He teaches us to pray. He points toward a loving Heavenly Father who is poised to help us in every situation Then at the end of the greatest sermon ever preached, he invites you and me into the building process.

Jesus has provided the guidance, but we must take the initiative to build on his words. We must decide if we trust his words enough to adopt them into our lives. It is one thing to hear him speak, it is quite another to order our lives around his words. His words are the words of life. But we must act on them.

Implicit in his teaching is the idea that we are all building. Each day, brick by brick we are building the houses of our lives. Everyone is building. The question is whether we are building on the rock, and the only way to do that is to put his words into practical operation in our lives.

As a pastor I have listened to people in crisis as they stare into the corner of the room and share the specific sadness that robs them of rest and peace. Their difficulties are real, their pain is not imagined. Sometimes the house of their life is crumbling around them. Seldom do I hear someone question whether they are forgiven or whether they will go to heaven. But frequently I hear them question if God cares about their suffering at that moment. From their ruin they do not doubt that God will forgive them at the end of their lives, but they openly wonder whether he cares at all about their lives right now.

Of course, God does care about our lives right now. He cares so much that he sent Jesus to model how to live in this world in a way that equips us to experience rest and peace right now, no matter what happens. But he will not build our lives without us. We must participate with him, and that participation begins with the determination to put his words into practice, to build on the rock.

School of Ministry, Part Two

Jesus summed up the entire curriculum for training his disciples with a simple command, “Come, follow me.”

The Problem:

For many of us “Come follow me” is too simple. Jesus is no longer here, how can we follow? Jesus lived in another place and time, how does his life serve as an example for ours today? Or perhaps the greatest challenge: Jesus is the sinless Son of God, isn’t it impossible to follow him?

Perhaps the very fact that we stumble at the invitation demonstrates why individual Christians (and the church as a whole) have difficulty impacting our society. We are good at study. We are big at planning and organizing. We are very good at structure and control. But we are not very good at following. Those who cannot grasp “Come follow me” underscore the problems we face.

I suspect that we are limited in our effectiveness because we have placed understanding above obedience. We have prized our intellectual capacities above the kind of love that causes us to become imitators of the Beloved. In a natural family children learn first by imitating their parents. Only later do they understand. But in the family of God we are at risk of being the kind of people who James, the brother of Jesus, cautioned: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” His warning reminds us that if we separate actions from what we learned we are setting ourselves up for deception.

“I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus did not say, “I know the answer,” he said “I am the way.” He did not say, “I know the truth,” he said “I am the truth.” And he did not say “I will teach you about the life,” and said, “I am the Life.” Jesus did not come to produce “agree-ers,” he came to produce followers.

Some may object that since Jesus is no longer involved in earthly ministry that the model had to change. But He Himself said, “I only do the things I see the Father doing.” (John 5:19) He demonstrated how to follow an “invisible” God. He showed us how it is done. His actions present a clear pattern for us to follow.

The Beginning of the Solution:

The beginning of the solution is to look for his presence. It is that simple. He has promised it to us. Even as Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he made a startling assertion: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20)

Through the agency of his Holy Spirit Jesus remains alive and present among us. We must train our faculties to recognize his presence. He did not lie to us; he is here for us today. The first step toward becoming a follower of Jesus is to refuse to settle for anything less than his presence. This is a challenge to a society (the church!) which has prized education over relationship. We have substituted learning about him for being with him.

If this first step sounds too mystical, too subjective, it may underscore the extent of our need. The plain promise of Jesus is that, through the agency of His Spirit, Jesus remains available for us today: to lead, to guide, in short--for us to follow.

There is ample encouragement from believers in other cultures and times that he is available to us today. For example, Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite from the 17th century, lacked the necessary education to become a cleric. Instead he entered a monastery as a servant, working in the kitchen. From this place of humility he discovered the presence of Jesus in that kitchen and wrote letters to his friends, sharing that discovery. These letters and conversations were collected into a simple book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Its central message is that to those who are willing, the very presence of God can be cultivated in our lives. Or in Biblical language, “You will seek me find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13--but also Deut. 4:29; Prov. 8: 17; Matthew 7: 7; and Acts 17:27.) It is the testimony of scripture that God’s presence is available to all who desire it.

The beginning of the solution is to accept the invitation given to us--he is available! We can only follow those we see and hear, and Jesus still speaking, still pointing the way. Our “studies” in his School of Ministry begin with the refusal to accept anything less than his presence.

School of Ministry

Jesus’ message was the good news of the Kingdom, and his Kingdom method included making disciples. Just 15 verses into Mark’s gospel Jesus announces, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15) And in the next four verses he calls four men to come and follow him.

From the very earliest moments of his ministry Jesus called men to follow him. It was the call of the Kingdom and it was his invitation into his school of ministry.

After Jesus finished his mission, the inspired record of the book of Acts shows nearly every believer “doing” ministry. Even as Acts depicts the rise of leaders within the church, it still reveals everyday believers doing the works of Jesus and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Acts contains stories of men like Stephen, Philip, and Ananias chapter after chapter (Acts 7, 8, & 9). Men who were “ordinary” believers doing Kingdom works. As the church grew there was an indisputable need for leaders, and while there is Biblical warrant for leadership in the house of God, but it appears that the Scripture does not set apart “ministry” as an activity reserved for the few who led. When did ministry become a task exclusive to leaders?

In the centuries which have followed the the book of Acts, the church has endeavored to develop various schools of ministry, schools which qualify who is able to do the work of the ministry. The church has drawn from Greek models of philosophy; from military models to business models, the church has sought to produce leaders fit for serving God. The church has looked to educational models and developed universities and seminaries. But something has been lost--or largely lost--in formal methods to equip people for ministry. In my opinion what has been lost is the Jesus-curriculum for a school of ministry. Rarely has the church imitated the example of Jesus and simply repeated his call, “Come follow me.”

(To be fair, there have been communities throughout the centuries who have not lost the Jesus method: for example the Waldensians of the 12th century or the Moravians of the 18th century. Or the “Back to Jerusalem" movement of Chinese house churches in our day.)

But most especially in our modern era--an age which values accreditation and authorization--the church itself looks skeptically on those who would attempt to “do ministry” apart from specialized training or recognition conferred from others. And not without reason: one doesn’t need to look very far to find people who have been harmed ministry done badly. But somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the wise and simple pattern laid down by the Master: come and follow.

Jesus selected tradesmen and villagers to follow him. And in the act of following they became fit to do his work and to train others to do his work. They learned his ways not through formal education but by being with him and imitating him. When Mark’s gospel presents a list of the disciples it states simply that Jesus chose them “that they might be with him and he might send them out . . .” (Mark 3: 14). The pre-eminent qualification for ministry was that they were with him. Even their detractors observed by their actions that these men “had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

It’s not difficult to imagine. These men traveled with Jesus, camped and ate with Jesus, and shared life with him. If he was invited to a wedding, they went with him. If he taught the masses, they were with him. If he stayed up most of the night healing the sick, they were with him. It was their constant exposure to his presence and activity that became their school of ministry. Jesus did not assign readings or lecture extensively. If they had questions about what he said publicly, they asked him about it privately. And if Jesus had a concern about their behavior he asked them about it (for example, “what were you discussing just now?” Mark 8:17).

It is worth noting that with respect to preparation for ministry, neither Jesus nor any of his original twelve disciples would be considered qualified to teach in a university or seminary today! Our educational biases tilt strongly toward knowing about Jesus or about the scriptures as opposed to knowing him or being with him. Objective knowledge is certainly easier to quantify, but Jesus seemed to care far more about relationship than formal education. Clearly he and his disciples valued the scriptures and all of them demonstrated knowledge of them, but these abilities were secondary to relationship with Jesus.

Here is a challenge to our understanding of Jesus and his value system: after sending 70 of his followers out for their first ministry experience, he rejoiced before the Father with these words: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “ (Luke 10:21)

What are we to make of this?

How can we Humble Ourselves?

In my earliest years I attended a parochial school. I remember second grade distinctly because the “character theme” one month was humility. At the end of that month, in an assembly before the entire school, I was named the winner of the “Humility Award,” but they took it away from me because I actually accepted the award!
OK, perhaps the story is not true, but it does illustrate the conflicting ideas Christians entertain regarding what it means to be humble. Where do we get our ideas about humility? If God “gives grace to the humble,” how can I eagerly pursue his best for me without falling into mere self-interest?
This blog draws its identity from the words of Jesus in Matthew 11: 25 - 30. These words point to an important revelation: Jesus invites anyone who would follow him to come under his instruction and learn his way of life. Surprisingly, his first reason for calling us to follow him is that he is “gentle and humble in heart.” Even as he offers the benefit of rest, he highlights his own personality--a gentle and humble man. The Teacher does not want to impart merely information, at least not first and foremost. His first lessons are his very own attributes--gentleness and humility. It is a bold offer to follow him, and perhaps the boldest aspect of this offer is the unimaginable possibility that we can learn to become like him.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke. This image was common enough in his day: A yoke is a large collar which places the strength of an ox or horse at the disposal of someone else. We are the ones placing our strength at his disposal. He will not conquer us, we must bow before him as a matter of choice. The path to becoming like Jesus starts with his invitation, “Come to me;” and after he speaks we can choose to accept that invitation by only one method: to humble ourselves.
In fact, on four separate occasions Jesus employs this phrase: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” These passages are not simply repetition caused by the gospels re-telling the same story--each passage is unique (Matt. 18:4, Matt. 23:12, Luke 14:11, and Luke 18:14). Four times Jesus lays out the challenge: humble yourself. But how?
If you have time this week, I invite you to read each passage and meditate on each setting. I would like to suggest that each passage teaches us the “how to” of humility:
Matthew 18: 1 - 4. Lay aside dreams of greatness and embrace dreams of dependency. This is the highway of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that among men there was none greater than John the Baptist, yet the person who was “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John. Living in the Kingdom requires God’s intervention every day. We cannot “make the Kingdom happen,” we can only proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in, and then depend on Him to invade the ordinary with his presence and power.
Matthew 23: 1 - 12. Lay aside the thrill of recognition and find the joy of serving. If we are honest we will recognize ourselves in the people Jesus describes--those who strive for recognition by the way they dress, or where they park, or by the titles they hold. It is thrilling to be noticed, to be selected from among the crowd for recognition. Meanwhile the servants come and go in the midst of all the clamor, quietly attending to the Master’s business. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals that the Father is the one who “sees in secret.”
Luke 14: 7 - 14. Lay aside the thirst for honor from others and seek to honor others instead. In fact Jesus tells us to honor those who cannot repay us. True, there is a time of reckoning and a place to receive repayment, but it is not here and now; it is later. Can we delay gratification or does our thirst drive us to be satisfied now?
Luke 18: 9 - 14. Lay aside self assessment and depend on God’s mercy. Jesus draws a picture of two men at prayer. The first begins with “thanks” but quickly tallies up the score of the game he has been playing. He has been keeping score all along and reminds God that he is the winner. The other man starts with God's mercy instead of self assessment. Score-keeping (and judgment) belong to God. Let’s be careful. If we have a measuring stick, we will eventually be asked to stand next to it!
These four passages are the very words of Jesus. Later his disciples would encourage all followers of Jesus to stand in the grace which comes to us as we choose to humble ourselves. It’s how we take the yoke. It’s how we position ourselves to learn from him.

The Challenge of Grace

It seemed like he would never get off the phone, and I had somewhere to go right now.

We’ve all been in situations like this: late for an appointment, packing up our things while talking on the phone so we can bolt the moment the conversation is over. “When will this guy finish?” I thought. “I should have left five minutes ago . . .” and then it hit me--I was in my office, but I was talking to him on my cell phone. I could have left the office and headed for my appointment while he rambled on!

My real problem was not the long-winded guy on the phone, it was that everything I learned about the telephone came from a time when using the phone meant staying in one place. What a lesson: there are times when we must examine the things we think know, when we must clear the slate and begin again.

In my opinion followers of Jesus must see the grace of God through new eyes.

To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but only tell half the truth.

The more I read the New Testament, the more challenging grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that comes with some challenges. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2: 11 – 14 NIV).

What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.

Apparently God’s grace is not finished with us at the moment we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being saved,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensibly and live upright lives.

Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is the more than the first step, it is necessary for every step. Sadly many Christians have been taught that any effort on their part runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. “Having been saved by grace,” he writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”

The Apostle Peter concurs on the subject of God’s grace: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5, NIV). In fact James, the brother of Jesus, says the very same thing (James 4:6). It turns out they were both quoting Proverbs 3:34, those inspired words written nearly a thousand years before the church came into being.

If Peter and James both latched on to this teaching from Proverbs, it must be important. First, it tells us that God gives grace. Fair enough: isn’t that what God is supposed to do? But this verse also tells us that God gives grace to certain kinds of people—humble people. Finally it also tells us that God can withhold grace from another kind of people—the proud. Keep in mind that Peter and James were writing to believers.

So it’s true that God is in the giving business, but apparently there is something we are supposed to do as well. We should be the kind of people who humble ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not humble ourselves, we may just find out that God is opposing us. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a good thing. Many believers are surprised to learn that there is something we can all do to bring the grace of God into our lives: we can humble ourselves.

Some will object that this sounds a lot like “works.” We can’t work our way into heaven, can we? But Paul’s advice to Titus says that grace does at least two things. It saves and teaches. Perhaps that’s why theologian Dallas Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?

The Bible is full of surprises, and for me some of the biggest surprises come from words and concepts that I think I already know. Grace is about more than knowing, it’s also about being. If God wants to give me the grace to be more like Jesus, and if it takes a little effort on my part, then count me in.